Hatton House Diaries

One day, we decided to buy a 125 year old Victorian House in Des Moines, Iowa…….

The Front Door Finishing December 13, 2013

The doors, after sanding to even out the finish, no shellac yet.

The doors, after sanding to even out the finish, no shellac yet.

When we bought the Hatton House, there was a gorgeous door already in place, however it was painted on the exterior, but in a horrifying state of unfinished on the interior. Someone had stained the door with a single layer of stain, but they’d done in haphazardly, so that parts of the door had no stain at all, and parts of the door had stain pooled into corners and left to permanently damage the color of the wood. I stared at this door for two years, trying to sort out how I was going to attack it. I have tried to avoid using heavy duty strippers, and I couldn’t sand away the spots where stain had collected. I decided to try to finesse the coloring in the wood in combination with removing the dark spots where I could.

I started with a light sanding of 200 grit paper to take the dirt and hopefully even out some of the variation in color from the stain job. It didn’t take out all the color variation, especially in the window muntin corners, but it helped, and I hoped would be enough once I blended it with the shellac. Several people I’ve talked to use colorants in their shellac, but I opted for pure shellac and a stain coat from General Finishes Gel Stain in color Java.

This is what we were up against: stain on the face of the muntins, but not the sides, except where it pooled to almost black in the corners.

This is what we were up against: stain on the face of the muntins, but not the sides, except where it pooled to almost black in the corners.

I coated the doors with a thin coat of shellac, followed by a coat of stain in areas that needed to be darkened. It was a bit tricky, feathering in the stain over the areas that got too dark in the previous owner’s coating. Each coat took about 90-120 minutes per door, as it took so much time to coat all the surfaces around the window panes without completely trashing the stained glass. Once I was happy that the color was as balanced as it could be, I alternated coats of shellac with extra fine steel wool until I’d built up a nice sheen. I think there were three cycles of shellac by the end of it.

The end result is pretty great. I love how the shellac pulls out the grain in the wood, and I think the variations in stain are to the point where they look like aging more than mistakes (that’s what I’ll tell myself at least). I used denatured alcohol to lift some of the wax from the trim around the door, and I’m pretty confident that with a little work in the spring, the trim can be brought to look just as great as the door does. Stay tuned….now that I’m getting more confident with wood working projects, it may be time to tear into the endless supply of those projects.

The finished product. Completed doors that look amazing (but don't photograph well) in the daylight.

The finished product. Completed doors that look amazing (but don’t photograph well) in the daylight.


Refinishing Wood…the David Sweet Way February 8, 2013

This week (month?), I’m continuing the first floor woodwork refinishing, using the David Sweet method. David uses historically appropriate strippers and finishes (read: no poly) and creates finishes that look like they belong in a 125 year old house. The process takes longer than dip stripping and smacking on poly based finish, but the color is so deep and finish so rich, I can’t really argue with it. It’s my forever house, right?

I’m using a heat gun to remove paint when I have to, but my first choice is to find pieces without paint. My least favorite is pieces that have paint over bare wood, because you have to work extremely fast with the heat gun in order to avoid scorching the wood. Wood that’s been stained then painted is easy to work with a heat gun, working from the details out to the flat surfaces. After the heat gun, my biggest expense was the very nice respirator I purchased after working for an hour without one and feeling like I’d just taken a year off my life.

Best case, you start with a piece that looks like the one on the left, and you can scrape off what little paint is on it and not even involve paint removers. Be careful with strippers, as many can permanently damage some wood species. We used a mixture of denatured alcohol and old shellac from previous projects (this reminded me of something like sourdough starter) to remove the shellac and 100 years of wax and dirt buildup. I felt like I was flipping back through stories of maids who were too lazy to strip the previous year’s wax as I was removing all the layers by alternating my denatured alcohol starter and ragging off. That will leave you at the piece that looks like the left center plinth block.

The right center plinth has been coated with shellac. A few more coats of shellac would give it a true historic finish that is deep and rich. We were trying to match the color of our aged wood, as shellac will age into a darker reddish tone from it’s dark golden start with wax and years. You can pigment shellac, or add a stain layer for color. It takes some experimentation to get the exact color, but as you can see, the end result is gorgeous! Now, on to the miles of board I have left!


Local Business Find: Bygone Era Consulting May 2, 2012

Filed under: Keep It Local,Remodeling and Design Projects — hattonhousedsm @ 5:11 am

imageRiver Bend is full of people who are super smart about home renovation done properly. No one better exemplifies that than David Sweet of Bygone Era Consulting. I found out about him because he’s one of very few people who work on steam heat in Des Moines, and he’s about the only one with expertise in our single pipe system. He also restores antique gas and electric lighting, old plumbing, and does pre-purchase evaluations of older homes. But we became friends over woodwork.

As I was working on refinishing the trim for our bathroom addition, people kept mentioning that I should talk to David, because he’s so knowledgeable about refinishing trim with historic accuracy. He doesn’t just strip wood down and slap a coat of poly on it. He restores the original finish using old world chemicals and techniques. I finally called him and made an appointment to have him come check out our projects.

As luck would have it, our appointment was for April 16, 2012, Greek Easter Monday. When David arrived, he touched our mezuzah, so I asked if he was Jewish. He said no, but he was active in the Greek Orthodox church, which led me to share that while I was Jewish, my non-Jewish grandmother was Greek, and I was thinking of her and the Greek Easter traditions she had taught me. Suddenly, David was singing (beautifully) Easter hymns in my kitchen, and I was ready to hang out and absorb knowledge as long as he wanted to stay.

In addition to being well versed in various traditional religions, he’s a genius with wood trim. He lifts decades of wax and grime off gently, respecting the history and soul of the wood, and then rebuilds the finish to it’s original glory. It’s mesmerizing to watch him do it, as he tells stories of lazy house maids who would go for years without properly stripping the wax of the house trim. I thought the trim would be the biggest chore (OK, it still might be by the time I finish the miles of it in this house!) but it was a pleasure taking lessons in wood finishing from David Sweet.

Bygone Era Consulting is too old school for a website or Facebook page, but you can reach David at 515-729-4169 or davdsweet@aol.com.


Local Business Find: Southpaw Furniture Refinishing and Restoration April 20, 2012

imageThe good news is the Hatton House came with it’s own architectural salvage in the attic: a huge pile of historic trim, bullseyes, plinth blocks and more. The bad news is that most of our salvage was in very rough shape. I started out pulling pieces that I could scrub down and clean up myself, but I quickly ran out of “quality” pieces and wasn’t too excited about stripping paint out of the detailed carving of the trim we needed to add three new doors as part of adding the first floor bathroom. Fortunately, I found Southpaw Furniture Refinishing in Valley Junction. For $1 per foot, Kevin will soak boards in a stripping bath that pulls most of the paint off even the boards that are paint on bare wood.